Why Is Iran Shaking Up Its Military Leadership?

A meeting of the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Via Office of the Supreme Leader.

The Islamic Republic doubles down on its regional ambitions.

In an unexpected development late last month, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced the promotion of Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri as chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces. A shadowy figure from the country’s vaunted Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammed Bagheri has been tasked with overseeing all branches of Iran’s armed forces, including the IRGC, the regular military (Artesh), and the police.

The previous chief of staff, Hassan Firouzabadi, had been in the position for twenty-seven years. A veterinarian by background, he was credited for significant developments to Iran’s military forces, but his lack of military pedigree remained a stain on his reputation.

Mohammad Bagheri, on the other hand, boasts a strong military pedigree: the brother of a war hero, he spent the entirety of the Iran-Iraq War on the front lines, utilizing his strategic acumen to become the IRGC’s chief of intelligence and information operations. He transferred to the General Staff immediately after the war, continuing his work in intelligence. He holds a PhD in political geography and geopolitics, and teaches at the General Staff’s officer school, the Supreme National Defense University.

Importantly, Mohammad Bagheri belongs to a clique of IRGC officers who form the organization’s core leadership, sitting alongside the likes of Mohammad Ali Jafari, the current commander of the IRGC, and Qassem Soleimani, the famed general directing the IRGC’s expeditionary wing, the Quds Force. Composed of just a few members, this clique shares deep ties dating back to the Iran-Iraq War, and is hugely influential in shaping the organization’s trajectory. Neither is it averse to intervening in domestic politics: members of this clique, including Mohammad Bagheri, signed a letter in 1999 to then president Mohammad Khatami, threatening a military coup if Khatami did not crush a growing student rebellion.

The appointment of Mohammad Bagheri as the most powerful man in Iran’s armed forces, at a time when Iran is embroiled in conflicts across the Middle East, is no mere organizational reshuffle. Rather, it suggests a fundamental tactical and strategic realignment of Iran’s military posture, spearheaded by the powerful IRGC, that could have major repercussions on regional developments for years to come.

The depth of this realignment can be seen by the extent of the changes within Iran’s armed forces, with a number of other appointments being announced in the weeks following Mohammad Bagheri’s promotion.

Most curious of these changes was the appointment of Maj. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid, another member of the IRGC’s core leadership, as the IRGC’s representative to the Khatam al-Anbiya Headquarters, a joint IRGC-Artesh strategy and tactical planning center within the General Staff. Though rarely spoken about in recent years, the Khatam al-Anbiya Headquarters played an important role coordinating joint IRGC-Artesh operations during the Iran-Iraq War, and a number of top commanders spent their formative times in the center, including the current commander of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari. The center appears to have diminished in importance in recent years, however, with little said or heard about it in official statements or policy circles. Neither has it enjoyed a dedicated or prominent leadership since the Iran-Iraq War, with responsibility falling on Mohammad Bagheri to run it in parallel to his other roles in the General Staff.